In May 2015 I started a new and exciting job, and I wanted to buy myself something special and memorable to mark the occasion. It goes without saying that the ‘something special and memorable’ was going to be horse-related!
After much research, I stumbled upon the Ultimate Dressage Experience by Sandra Blake Farrell – an opportunity to have a private lesson on a dressage schoolmaster, with a Grand Prix Dressage rider (Sandra herself). Having recently discovered my passion for dressage, but not knowing if I was asking the right ‘questions’ of Betsey in our sessions, I thought it would be valuable to have a schoolmaster lesson to help me understand the correct way to ask the questions, and the responses I should expect in return! A glowing review from Lorna Keogh of Equestrian Reality sealed the deal for me, and so I booked my lesson for mid-July. The lessons are typically geared towards riders who would like to experience advanced dressage movements, but for me it was all about fine-tuning the basics on a well-schooled horse, and luckily Sandra had a horse available that could help me with this!
Sandra runs the Ultimate Dressage Experience, as well as coaching and livery, out of her base at Dollanstown Stud in Kilcock, Co. Kildare – the yard and grounds are absolutely stunning, and there is an air of peace and tranquility about the place. I had my lesson in the large outdoor arena which had both a showjumping course AND a 60×20 dressage arena built within it, but there is also a 60×20 indoor arena with mirrors for those (inevitable) wet and windy days! My trusty steed for the session, Avatar, was tacked up and beautifully turned out in matchy-matchy saddlepad and bandages when I arrived, all I had to do was 1) mount and 2) not ride like a complete potato.
Well, one out of two isn’t bad, right?! Riding a horse that is so fine-tuned to the rider’s aids, and requires the correct application of the aids to execute a movement, goes a long way to showing you where there is room for improvement. We spent a long time working on the fundamentals of dressage – the aids, and how each of them (seat, leg and hands) can be used to create a more responsive horse. As someone who has been riding since I was 10, a lot of what I learned in that lesson felt like an epiphany of sorts – how the smallest shift in your pelvis can mean vastly separate movements, or how moving your leg forward or back by just an inch or two can quickly change what it is you are asking of your horse.
Something that really stood out to me was just how much I allow Betsey to influence how I ride – due to her natural tendency towards being on her forehand and behind the leg, I ended up tipping forward, legs coming back almost like I was ‘kneeling’ in the saddle, and thump-thump-thumping every stride! Not only does it not look pretty, but it is not an effective or correct way of going for either horse or rider. As a result of riding this way for the guts of a year, we spent the first 10-15 minutes of the lesson focusing on ways for me to check my position at regular intervals, and how to be more in tune with my own body so I could spot when I was going back to my old ‘comfortable’ riding position.
Sandra spent a lot of time showing me how to use preparatory aids such as the half halt, and how to do more with my seat to execute transitions between and within the paces. We also worked on how to use subtle signals (such as a shift in weight in the seatbones or a slight change of leg position) followed by one strong aid (such as a stronger leg aid or a little flick of the schooling whip) to teach the horse to be more responsive to aids they may previously have been ‘dull’ to. This I found very insightful to take back to my schooling sessions with Betsey, to teach her to be more responsive to my leg aid without desensitising her to it, or kicking every stride.
I also had the opportunity to look at lateral movements, specifically shoulder-in, including seeing a demo from one of Sandra’s students to understand the angle at which the shoulder-in is ridden. This really helped as I had been trying to ask for this of Betsey at home but she never seemed to produce it, and I wasn’t sure if I was asking incorrectly or she just wasn’t getting it. Turns out I was expecting a much more dramatic angle in the body than one should look for in shoulder-in, and so the ‘ask’ and execution weren’t an issue at all, moreso rider expectations!
One of my favourite things about Sandra’s coaching style is the manner in which she explains a new way of thinking or fresh approach to her students. I am the type of person that needs detail, and wants to understand in-depth the ‘why’ of what I am being asked to do, and Sandra definitely coaches in this way. I struggle to keep the throughness in transitions, and a key analogy of Sandra’s that I took away from the day was thinking of asking for transitions like putting together a ‘sentence’, and that the horse cannot do what you are asking if you don’t use the entire sentence:
- Half-halt to let the horse know something is coming
- Use the seat to signal what specifically is coming
- ‘Confirm’ the transition using leg or hand
To some, it may seem very simple, but for me who has struggled endlessly with throughness in transitions, it enables me to break my transitions down into three clear actions, and if I don’t execute a good transition, then I know what I need to go back and work on.
An instructor tells you what to do, a trainer tells you what to do and how to do it, and a coach tells you what to do, how to to do it, and why you’re doing it. I need the coach – really, don’t we all? Which is why following my Ultimate Dressage Experience in July 2015, I began having regular private lessons with Sandra on Betsey to improve our flatwork and dressage scores. The difference after just 6 months of coaching has been amazing, as evidenced by the pictures below (on the left, Summer 2015; on the right, January 2016). We have shifted our Prelim scores from 62% to consistently scoring 68%+ in that same time period.
I’ll do a separate blog post on my learnings from our lessons with Sandra, but I would highly recommend her to anyone looking to improve their dressage scores, improve their flatwork for jumping, or have the Ultimate Dressage Experience!